A pleasure barge is a flat bottomed, slow moving boat used for leisure. It is contrasted with a standard barge, which is used to transport freight. Many places where canals or rivers play a prominent role have developed pleasure barges for conducting religious ceremonies or waterborne festivities, or for viewing scenery.
Barges of all kinds were commonly used on the Nile in ancient Egypt. When the Pharaoh Akhenaten revolutionized Egyptian religion, he renamed his pleasure barge "Splendour of Aten" after his dominant god. A miniature of a royal barge was amongst the booty of the tomb of Tutankhamun. The most famous Egyptian barge is that used by Cleopatra when she arrived in luxurious state to seduce Mark Antony.
The 11th century Chinese writer Ouyang Xiu mentions a pleasure barge in his poetry with oars the color of orchids (or magnolias, depending on the translation). An ivory model of a Qing Dynasty imperial pleasure barge exists at the Vancouver Maritime Museum. In 1357, King Boromtrailokanat of Ayudhaya, in what would later become Thailand, decreed a yearly barge race. His barge would compete against the barge of his consort. If the consort's barge won, then the year would bring abundance. If the King's barge won then it would signify hardship. The consort's barge was usually allowed to win. A later Thai king included a royal barge bearing Buddhist relics in his war party against Burma. By the 17th century, royal Thai barge processions included more than 100 barges, and oarsmen wore matching red garments and gold jewelry.
Wealthy states which relied on water trade sometimes developed barges specifically linked to the ruling class. A painting by Jan van de Capelle from 1650 depicts the state barge of the Netherlands being saluted by gun blasts from battle ships. The doges of Venice also traveled by state barge.
The Grand Canal d'Alsace at Versailles served as a setting for elaborate play barges in the 17th and 18th centuries. The gilded goddess figurehead from Marie Antoinette's barge survives, and Napoleon commissioned a ceremonial barge for his official visit to the port of Brest in 1810. The latter is at the French Musee National de la Marine.
Until the middle of the 19th century, barges were common sights on the River Thames in London. These included shallops, luxury transport for the upper class, rowed by up to eight liveried servants, and sometimes decorated with gilded carvings and ornate draperies. Handel's famous Water Music was composed to be played with its audiences listening from pleasure barges.
Religious ceremonies are still conducted aboard barges in Thailand, where up to fifty barges at a time travel in battle formation on Bangkok's rivers. The royal barge is rowed by fifty oarsmen, steered by two steersmen, and commanded by two officers. The crew is rounded out by a flagman, a chantman, and a signalman. Bangkok has a museum devoted entirely to royal barges.
Barges built to provide people with scenic trips down rivers developed along with the growing middle class in Europe and the United States. Modern pleasure barges, such as those that travel the wine regions of France, can include such amenities as DVD players, exercise equipment, onboard kitchens and water closets, skylit passenger cabins, and stereo systems.
The most well known pleasure barge to Americans may be the fictitious Khetanna, the floating air-propelled barge of Jabba the Hutt in the Star Wars universe. The original concept art for this barge depicted it as an opulent baroque craft, but the final construction was more utilitarian in appearance. The barge appears in the film Return of the Jedi.